Secretary of the Interior defers response to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s concerns about Haskell to another federal agency leader

photo by: Journal-World file

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown in this file photo from Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s office has received a response to a letter sent last month calling for “systemic overhaul” of the federal office that oversees Haskell Indian Nations University — but not from the leader he sought answers from.

Moran, R-Kansas, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in late April highlighting the “urgent need” for overhaul within two Interior offices — the Bureau of Indian Education, which directly oversees Haskell, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That letter was a response to the public release of a report on a wide-ranging investigation that took place at Haskell starting in July 2022.

But instead of Haaland, BIE Director Tony Dearman was the one who responded earlier this week.

“I am disappointed Secretary Haaland chose not to respond to my inquiry,” Moran said in a statement shared with the Journal-World. “I sent this inquiry to the secretary because the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education have, for some time, failed to adequately treat Haskell, its staff and its students with the attention they deserve. Unfortunately, the Secretary fell into the same pattern of ignoring these longstanding issues by deferring to the Bureau of Education to respond to my inquiry. This is not only unacceptable, but further underscores the lack of urgency and leadership necessary to improve conditions at Haskell. I will continue fighting for change and I call on the secretary to join me in this effort.”

The letter from Dearman, which Moran’s office shared with the Journal-World, is six pages long and summarizes the investigation on campus and the BIE’s past communications with Moran’s office. It also provides answers to a series of eight questions to which Moran had requested a response from Haaland by May 8 — a deadline the U.S. Department of the Interior missed by a full week.

A spokesperson with Moran’s office, however, characterized the contents of Dearman’s response as “vague” and “evasive” and said it failed to properly address many of Moran’s concerns.

The letter from Dearman also claims that another communication with Moran from March 2023 included a summary of actions in progress due to the report’s findings, including that “Haskell would implement several policy and procedural reforms to take effect no later than fall 2024” related to employee and student sexual harassment and bullying, athletic equipment and facility use and management, and more — just some of the issues addressed in the report’s findings.

While those items are indeed listed in the March 2023 letter, which Moran’s office also shared with the Journal-World, nowhere in the letter does it mention fall 2024 as a target for implementing any of those reforms.

Dearman’s letter to Moran from earlier this week does provide some context for the procedures the BIE and Haskell followed before the July 2022 investigation began. Dearman said it was prompted by three separate alleged sexual assaults reported by students in April and May 2022. The BIE’s Human Resources officer wasn’t made aware of the allegations until June of that year, when members of the Haskell community contacted him. Dearman’s letter claims that the federal Office of Inspector General chose not to pursue an investigation in July 2022, and four days later the BIE organized the investigative team that ultimately produced the report.

In the wake of the investigation on campus, Dearman in his most recent letter again claims that Haskell has implemented numerous policy and procedural reforms aimed at addressing issues of sexual harassment, which he said “will be published, to the extent possible, on Haskell’s website in May or June.”

Dearman’s letter also notes that Haskell hired a “campus advocate coordinator” position responsible for overseeing the investigation and reporting of sexual misconduct incidents, conducting and implementing training for sexual misconduct response and collaborating with leadership for effective incident management, among other listed duties.

Dearman added that Haskell has “thoroughly reviewed” its existing manuals on sexual misconduct and students’ rights and the Student Code of Conduct, and has prepared draft versions “containing several reforms.” Dearman said the new Student Code of Conduct will be reviewed by the Haskell Student Government Association and implemented by the 2024-2025 school year.

“Haskell follows all DOI anti-harassment policies and guidelines, and the new Student Code of Conduct will have updated procedures for reporting and investigating these incidents,” the letter reads.

Dearman also touts expanded behavioral health services for students and staff as another positive action that’s taken place since the investigation at Haskell concluded. He said that includes on-campus and virtual access to services, group and individual therapy and training for the campus community.

One question in particular from Moran’s recent inquiry doesn’t get much of an answer in Dearman’s response. Moran asked how the Department of the Interior is holding employees accountable for the wrongdoing outlined in the report, to which Dearman offered only a vague reply.

“Based on the report’s findings and recommendations, the BIE took significant and appropriate corrective actions,” the letter reads. “We cannot comment on the details of any personnel actions but want to affirm that the department takes allegations of wrongdoing very seriously.”

The March 2023 letter to Moran does, however, comment on personnel actions in the wake of the investigation. It states that the BIE initiated disciplinary action against 10 federal employees, including suspending and reassigning several of them and even terminating one contract.

Another question from Moran to Haaland last month asked what the BIE is doing to improve its communication with students, staff and Congress. Dearman said the BIE recognizes the need for improved communication at Haskell, which he said the university took a significant step in improving by appointing a permanent president after years of instability.

“The multi-year vacancy in the top leadership position has historically hampered consistent and effective communication with students and staff,” the letter reads. “The newly appointed president communicates through regular student and staff engagements, digital platforms and increased communication initiatives. Ensuring transparency and collaboration is paramount for Haskell and the BIE, and we are dedicated to fostering a culture of open communication within the Haskell community.”

As the Journal-World has reported, students at Haskell first sent a letter to Haaland in March 2023 calling for the public release of the report on the investigation on campus. It took more than a year for the report to be released publicly, and that only happened after the BIE was sued by a government watchdog nonprofit — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — after failing to disclose records the agency had requested via a Freedom of Information Act request.


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